Thousands of active and retired firefighters and family and friends again forsook the larger ceremony downtown to attend the unofficial 9/11 firefighter memorial service at the Firemen’s Monument on Riverside Drive, marking the extraordinary sacrifice of 343 Fire Department members on the day of the terrorist attacks.
Front and center were the 320 Probationary Firefighters who will graduate from the Fire Academy Sept. 24 and get their field assignments. In the mix were “13 of what we call legacy Firefighters, who are the sons or daughters of firefighters who have given their lives in the service of the City of New York,” said Leroy McGinnis, the vice president of the Uniformed Firefighters Association.
Notes Continuing Toll
In his benediction, FDNY Chaplain Father Stephen Harding reminded the assembled about the creeping toll 9/11 continues to take on the FDNY, with 205 members of the service having died from exposure to the WTC contamination since the attack and thousands more dealing with serious health issues.
“We remember the over-200 members of our department who have died as a result of their service on the pile or in the pit and their families,” he said. “We thank you for their strength, their love and their commitment.”
Father Harding cited Firefighter Michael Haub, who was 34 years old when he died in the WTC collapse, but whose remains were not identified until earlier this month by the City Medical Examiner’s Office.
The memorial service attracted the Fire Department Emerald Society Pipes and Drums and the Marine Corps Band from Quantico, Virginia, despite not being an official FDNY event. It’s a homegrown gathering created by the members of the FDNY that’s followed by a religious service, which this year was held at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
Away From WTC ‘Politics’
“This organically started by FDNY members because the [WTC] site where the names are read got very political and a lot of our members were not allowed at the site as the crowds grew and grew,” recalled Mr. McGinnis. “So they came up here where the Fire Memorial has been for over a hundred years and they decided to have a service here. It gets quite a turnout. We have not only our active and retired members but firefighters from all over the world.”
After the ceremony, dozens of firefighters from Germany posed for a photograph documenting their annual pilgrimage.
Firefighter Pascal Bergjohnn, 30, is a deputy chief of his Fire Department in a village in southwestern Germany near Wiesbaden. He was 12 years old on 9/11. “It is a day you remember all of your life,” he said.
He said the central role of the FDNY in the events that day, and in the months that followed, reinforced his desire to “follow in my father’s footsteps to become the deputy chief” in his local fire department.
He said that the occupational lessons gleaned from the WTC response and recovery had a major impact on the way his country trained and responded to fires. “Because of the WTC issues with cancer, our concern about [workplace] hygienics is growing,” he said. “In Germany we take our fire clothes off at the scene and put them in a bag to be cleaned and [decontaminated] at the scene, changing into our second pair of clothes” kept on the rig.
Enough time has passed that some of the attendees represent a second generation that committed to the fire service because of the WTC attack.
“I was three on 9/11 and my dad started his fire schooling right after 9/11,” said Firefighter Dylan Keenan, 21, with the Palm Beach County Fire and Rescue. “So, I started riding with him through a special program. From early on I knew what I wanted to do. When no one knows who else to call, they call the Fire Department.”
There were dozens of neighborhood residents on hand as well.
Upper West Side residents Joel Kupferman and his life-partner Columbia Fiero were in attendance.
‘An Extreme Kinship’
Mr. Kupferman, an attorney and Ms. Fiero, a documentarian, are both with the New York Environmental Law & Justice Project that was retained by the UFA in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 to independently establish the level of WTC contamination in city firetrucks and other vehicles, at a time when government agencies either refused to release such data or were slow to release it.
“The Memorial is a mere seven blocks from my home, and over these years I have developed an extreme kinship with the firefighters and their families after seeing and touching the WTC dust in their firetrucks and even back in their firehouses,” Mr. Kupferman said.
Behind the phalanx of firefighters who stood at attention on Riverside Drive were clusters of mourners who sought the shade and sanctuary provided by the old trees and their massive leaf canopy.
As the reading of the names of those who perished on 9/11 worked its way through the alphabet, the impact on individual attendees was evident each time the name uttered was that of someone close.
Along the tree-lined wall, a senior fire officer put his arm around a female friend at one point in the roll call, a few names ahead of when her loved one’s name was called. As that name hung in the air, her face was grief-stricken but her escort held her until the worst of her despair passed.
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